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Rural Chinese teacher owed 15 years of back pay, but still devoted to pupils

As mainland China marked Teacher’s Day on Saturday, a substitute teacher in the countryside who wasn’t paid for 15 years stole the headlines in mainland media.

Chen Chonghua, 53, has taught at a primary school for 32 years in his hometown, a village in Huangchuan county, Henan province. Chen’s salary between 1984 and 1999, which totals 16,000 yuan (HK$18,580), is still owed by the local government, which said it couldn’t afford to pay him, according to a report by news portal Thepaper.cn.

The report said at least 20 substitute teachers like Chen have been owed salaries for similarly long times.

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“There are still a large amount of village teachers that have been substitute teachers for their whole lives, and couldn’t afford to get higher diplomas to be recognised by public schools” said Li Guangyu, a member of the National People’s Congress who represents Henan. “Even though they are doing the hardest work, they are not covered by social welfare.”

China’s substitute teachers, sometimes dubbed “sweat workers” by other teachers, support basic education in poverty-stricken rural areas. Because they are not officially recognised by the country’s public education system, they have no social welfare coverage and get paid less than officially recognised teachers, despite doing the same work.

Since the 1980s, the Chinese government has been trying to replace its unofficial substitute teachers qualified educators. However, poor living conditions and few resources discourage many qualified staff from teaching at rural primary schools, so counties and villages have resorted to hiring graduates of local high schools, such as Chen, and often can’t afford to pay them.

After graduating from high school in 1982, Chen returned to his home to farm. In October 1984, when the primary school in his village was hiring teachers, he was the top candidate and achieved the highest score. He was aged 21 at the time.

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“At that time, it was a ‘honour’ for someone from a rural family to become a teacher,” Chen was quoted as saying. “There is no future in growing crops every day. I was fortunate to be a teacher without establishing personal networks.”

He has taught a variety of courses, including being responsible for the physical education of the school’s 400 students, and has received much praise from the county government and respect from his fellow villagers.

Between 1984 and 1999, when management of the school changed from the village to its affiliated town, Chen received no pay. All he received was a stack of receipts of the salary owed, which amounted to 16,000 yuan.

During the long period without pay, Chen had to fall back on farming to support his family. When Chen’s father had a stroke, the teacher had no money to pay his father’s hospital expenses. He also had to borrow money to pay for his children’s tuition. Even so, Chen didn’t give up teaching as he couldn’t bear to leave his students, the report said.

A town government official was quoted as saying that the village had no source of revenue and was hoping the central government would take over its debt and pay Chen’s back salary as a priority.